SEAMUS offers heady introduction to the world of electro-acoustic music

Paul Smirl

With The Society for Electro-Acoustic Music gracing campus Feb. 9-11, concerts, paper sessions and installations were abound, transforming winter term reading period into electro-acoustic music immersion weekend.

Having a constant stream of performances, SEAMUS coupled an overwhelming academic atmosphere with a musical lineup like nowhere else, creating and blurring a conference/festival dichotomy. Individual acts were applauded for musicianship as well as composition, and concert-goers spent equal time clapping for the performers and looking back to acknowledge the composers most of whom were in attendance.

SEAMUS’ expansive nature was additionally fueled by the array of performance media that included live electronics, video, poetry, laptop, solo acoustic and electric instrumentalists and chamber ensemble. The presence of fixed media also permeated the festival, as certain acts, lacked performers entirely, as concert attendees devoted their focus to pre-recorded tracks.

A perfect microcosm for SEAMUS’ diversity was Concert 2, which boasted a strong lineup of compositions ranging from found-object improvisation to fixed video/live poetry collaboration.

One of the concert’s premier pieces was Richard Johnson’s “Introit,” a religious-themed work that explores the Catholic sacrament of Eucharist through fixed video and solo trumpet. Placing the millennium-old worship call of the “Introit” in an electronic-filled performance, Johnson’s piece was a horrifically psychedelic tableau of Christian ritual that’s burgeoning images blended greatly with the foreboding music.

Another exemplar from Concert 2 was Per Bloland’s “Of Dust and Sand,” a piece that uses a prepared piano device with 12 electromagnets suspended over the strings. Performer and Collaborative Pianist Nick Towns operated the device as an “anti-piano,” silencing the sonically active strings with his fingertips and lifting a finger to produce sound. The entirely acoustic performance was coupled with the outstanding playing of Sara Kind, whose rich saxophone performance resulted in a dense, seemingly electronic texture for Bloland’s piece.

Yet, while Concert 2 provided many insights into the booming realm of electro-acoustic composition, there were undoubtedly some head-scratching moments. One curious piece was the solo electric guitar/live processing work, “Quintessence’s Breath among the Branes,” composed and performed by Julius Buscis. Inspired by the “theory of everything,” Buscis’ piece was essentially an electric guitar solo fed through computerized effects. Lacking in form and focus, Buscis’ piece did little to resemble the heady explanation of “dark energy pervading our universe” printed in the concert program.

Outside of Harper Hall and the Memorial Chapel’s performance confines, SEAMUS was alive in installation form. “Social Structure [Construction no. 1]” a piece by Louisiana State artists, Jesse Allison, Nick Hwang and Michael Strauss, for instance was a multi-media sculpture that combined electronics, video, social media and sound recording to explore modern societal issues. Asking viewers to move blocks to transform sound and image, “Social Structure” was interactive in nature, but difficult to comprehend, striking to the nature of many SEAMUS events: Artistry outweighed presentation, as viewers were impressed but unable to fully engage.

Overall, the SEAMUS conference/festival provided Lawrence students with the excellent opportunity of electro-acoustic music immersion. The schedule and atmosphere were undoubtedly intimidating at times, but the number of experimental pieces and performances to witness and interact with, greatly outweighed any present stuffiness, resulting in a remarkable weekend of sound and art exploration.